Toronto
6 min

Diva/Anti Diva

The big egos of Sky Gilbert & Carole Pope exploded in the '80s

STAR POWER. Live a big life, write a book. Credit: Xtra files

Toronto in the 1980s. Yorkville. Bemelman’s. The Twilight Zone. Stages. Charlies. Dudes. Shopping on Queen West. Drinking in sleazy booze cans after hours.



Toronto was a city divided. On one hand it had the most dynamic music and arts scenes in the country, on the other hand you couldn’t get a drink after midnight.



No two Toronto personalities personify these times more perfectly than Carole Pope, lead singer for the late lamented band Rough Trade, and Sky Gilbert, founder and former artistic director of the largest gay and lesbian oriented theatre in North America, Buddies In Bad Times. Both divas in their own right, they have just released autobiographies that chronicle their lives and the sexual rebellion and repression that defined the ’80s.



Carole Pope has written Anti Diva, an alternatively breezy, ticklish and poignant account of her nomadic childhood, the acceptance of her lesbianism and her ascent to Canadian rock star status.



Geeky, bright and obsessed with sex, Carole Pope wasn’t your average ’70s flower-child beauty. She had a troubled family life and admits her only knowledge of lesbianism came from “a well-worn Wonder Woman comic and a book called The Well Of Loneliness, a depressing little tome about a woman called Stephen.”



Pope went to college with future famed female impersonator Craig Russell, lusted after straight women who fucked rock stars, interviewed Jimi Hendrix for a film documentary and ended up in Yorkville, Toronto’s counterculture epicentre in the ’70s. She painted animation cels for Rocket Robin Hood and started to write songs. She hung with the original Second City Crowd, including Andrea Martin (“then bi curious”), Gilda Radner and Martin Short and shared a number of affairs and narcotic episodes with them.



Eventually, Carole met her future collaborator and momentary lover Kevan Staples. With Kevan she formed one of Canada’s most influential and successful bands. During this period Carole also discovered the joys of “chick sex.” She ended her sexual relationship with Kevan and they established a friendship and working partnership that still seems to be the most positive and fertile of her life.



Although they were hugely popular on the Toronto bar scene for a number of years, it wasn’t until the tail end of the punk movement when Rough Trade released “High School Confidential,” from their first album Avoid Freud, that they gained national prominence. Rough Trade concerts were legendary, as much for their stylish designer outfits and surreal sets as for Pope’s crotch grabbing (long before Madonna even knew she had a crotch) and revolver-pointing stage antics. The band released a string of hits including “Weapons,” the autobiographical “Fashion Victim,” “Crimes Of Passion,” and “Shaking The Foundations.”



Carole, a sort of leather-clad lesbian lothario with attitude, was besieged by fans and saw the downside of fame, although it didn’t stop her from writing a song invoking all the names of the trendiest fashion designers of the time. She also entered into a long-term relationship with British blue-eyed soul singer Dusty Springfield. This relationship, like most of those Pope writes about, was a war between tenderness, co-dependence and substance abuse.



As Rough Trade’s fortunes increased, Pope found herself rubbing shoulders with Mick and Keith, Andy Warhol, the General Idea trio, Robert Mapplethorpe, Lorne Michaels, John Belushi, David Bowie and many other ’80s icons who stumbled through the Toronto and New York club scene looking for the next bump and the next fuck.



As most ’80s narratives inevitably do, Pope’s story becomes darker as the decade wanes. Many of Carole’s friends succumbed to AIDS, and then she lost her beloved younger brother Howard to the disease. Rough Trade, after gaining some airplay both on US radio and the infant MTV, failed to find a US label. Their rock videos were often considered too controversial to air. The formerly supportive Canadian critics turned on them. With their last album Pope felt, rightly, that she was in danger of becoming a parody of herself.



The band called it quits and played their final gig at the Diamond Club in 1989. Carole now admits this was a mistake, allowing they probably should’ve taken a hiatus rather than disbanding permanently.



It’s to Pope’s credit as a memoirist and as a person that her story doesn’t end with Rough Trade’s demise. With wry humour and a refreshing lack of self-pity, Carole manages to make the post Rough Trade years as interesting as the name-dropping years of success and excess. Although the odd ex lover, such as comedian Elvira Kurt, takes some good-natured knocks, Pope’s book manages to be diplomatic, spicy and only rarely shallow.



Sky Gilbert’s autobiography Ejaculations From The Charm Factory covers much of the same period but from a dramatically different perspective. Sky Gilbert’s.



Sky, born in the USA and shuffled off to Canada in adolescence, has outraged, entertained and stymied the Toronto arts scene for more than 20 years. As a playwright, artistic director, actor, journalist, novelist and poet, Sky has woven himself so securely into the fabric of avant garde, counterculture Toronto that he is not only an icon, but something of a monument as well.



The book is a very detailed account of Sky’s discovery of the theatre, his sexuality and how harsh the world can be for a sensitive gay man trying to create Art. Thankfully Gilbert is a fine enough storyteller to keep the reader moving forward through what, in lesser hands, would simply have been a cranky list of names and betrayals.



Sky bitches but he doesn’t whine. And he definitely gets his licks in. There are very few people of note from the Toronto theatre scene who are left untouched by Gilbert’s occasionally venomous pen.



Tarragon artist director Urjo Kareda gets an overdue and much deserved blasting for his corpulent, cookie-cutter dramaturgy. That pack of mediocro-scrits known as the Local Theatre Critics are taken to task for both their insidious homophobia and less that stellar writing ability.



Sky’s attack on each of these targets is well thought out, and valid. However his rant about HIV and the politics of AIDS education, while asking some legitimate questions, becomes confused. Likewise his distaste for the crowd he refers to as “sweater fags” comes off as paranoid and, frankly, a waste of energy. Xtra and a number of its editors and writers take some hits, of both the questionable and well-deserved sort.



Of his many collaborators, Gilbert is merciless with his criticism and his admiration. Playwright and actor Daniel MacIvor comes across as charming and Machiavellian; it’s suggested that actor Kent Staines is an artistic thief; director Derek Goldby is seen as a closeted uptight old queen; City Councillor Kyle Rae is depicted as a power hungry manipulator.



However, Gilbert is also quick to acknowledge that MacIvor is supremely talented, Staines is a fine actor and Goldby is one hell of a director.



With people he truly cares for, Sky is equally uncompromising, particularly about his role in their lives. He writes beautifully of his constantly changing relationship with Shaw Festival artistic director Christopher Newton. Newton comes across as exactly what he is, a cultured intelligent man of great integrity. When Sky screws up and disappoints Newton while working at the Shaw Festival, his regret is still felt nearly two decades later.



Other collaborators like playwright and director Edward Roy, directors Moynan King, Hillar Liitoja and Daniel Brooks, playwright Sally Clark and actors Anne Holloway, Kirsten Johnston, Peter Lynch and, most importantly, his former general manager and close collaborator Sue Golding, are all referred to with love and respect.



Gilbert is amazingly honest and balanced about his troubled relationship with his last general manager Tim Jones, the man who engineered Buddies’ move into its permanent home on Alexander St.



There will no doubt be great howls of, “That’s not how it happened!” throughout the city as this book is read. I found myself thinking that very phrase as I read a passage which stated that, during a meeting in an attempt to obtain emergency funds for a floundering Buddies, Kyle Rae suggested Sky produce my plays in order to get Martin Yesterday on the boards. Sky writes that, because the main character in the play is, like Kyle Rae, a city councillor, Kyle would be flattered by having the “blandly handsome” Stewart Arnott depict him on the stage.



The fact that the main character is a lying, drug-addicted HIV-positive rapist seems to be lost on Sky. (I showed an early draft of the radio script to Kyle so he’d be clear it wasn’t about him.) The fact that Sarah Stanley didn’t program the play until after Sky had left the theatre seems to have eluded him as well.



This is definitely The World According To Sky, which is completely fair in an autobiography. No one really expects an objective, fairly balanced account of a career and a life from the subject. This book, like the man himself, is full of contradictions, brilliant ideas, outrageous opinions, rare flashes of great joy and dark shadows. It will make some people laugh out loud and it will make some people very, very angry.



Frankly this book will do everything Sky the man has been doing for years. Sky Gilbert isn’t afraid to make unpopular statements and ask difficult questions. The many Toronto communities he intersects with may not always agree with him, but we should all treasure him. His job is a very difficult and important one. And he’s very good at it.



EJACULATIONS FROM THE CHARM FACTORY.

By Sky Gilbert.

ECW Press.

272 pages. $19.95.



ANTI DIVA.

By Carole Pope.

Random House Canada.

254 pages. $32.95.